2016 was a difficult year for Europe. The continent strained to absorb near-record numbers of immigrants arriving from the Middle East and Africa Also, Britain voted to exit the European Union.
And a new populist movement is threatening to bring more of the same brand of political change as we've seen here with the election of Donald Trump.
We sat with the EU ambassador to the US David O'Sullivan and began the conversation with immigration.
Sharyl: On the immigration situation, in the UK, and Europe, when we hear things reported in the United States, I think there are 2 views. One of them is that the gates have been opened and have welcomed people who are in desperate conditions and it's added a great deal of diversity to the EU and it's been a wonderful thing. On the other hand, I think there's a view that people are running amok, there are you know increases in crime because of this and people are endangered. What's the truth?
David O'Sullivan: Well I think it's much more the former and much less the later. I mean I think there have been relatively few incidence of violence or of civil unrest but it is true that this crisis has challenged European society simply by virtues of the numbers of people involved. But at the same time, there was nervousness, there was fear, there were 65 million displaced globally, were all of them going to come to Europe. Were we going to be able to manage this? And I think that's been the challenge. And I think frankly we have now managed it, I think we have brought the situation under greater control.
Sharyl: Does Europe now have a policy that says what happens and how to keep this from being something that overwhelms the entire continent?
David O'Sullivan: Yes I think we do. One thing we should know is that nearly 9 out of 10 of the people arriving at our frontiers in one way or another have paid or aided and abetted by a smugglers' network. And this is a human tragedy in many ways people giving their life savings sometimes to be put on leaky vessels and risk their lives. So dealing with the smugglers is a very important part of what we're doing, but also saving lives and I know we have tragically lost nearly 4,000 people in the Mediterranean this year. We have rescued nearly 400,000 people.
Sharyl: Can you give me just one example of how you were able to take 10,000 refugees a day coming in from Turkey to Greece and get that down to about 100?
David O'Sullivan: We offered substantial funds to Turkey to assist with the refugees they had in Turkey. Turkey is hosting about 3 million refugees and we have promised them in the first phase about 3 billion Euros in the second phase about 3 billion so 6 billion Euros not a gift to the Turkish government but to provide facilities for the refugees in Turkey so to create the best conditions possible for those refugees living in Turkey on a temporary basis obviously hoping that when the situation in Syria gets better they will return. Secondly, we agreed that ah any people that arriving illegally in in Europe and particular in Greece would be returned to Turkey so we we blocked the incentive of the smugglers to say to people oh once we get you to Europe you're ok then you'll go onto Germany.
Sharyl: As I hear you talk, I'm thinking about our southern border. It could be it could be applied many of the same concerns. Questions could be applied. What could we take from what Europe has already tried to implement, in protecting its own situation?
David O'Sullivan: Perhaps the biggest difference in the United States, between the United States and Europe is we were dealing with people coming as asylum seekers and refugees fleeing conflict and with legal entitlement And this of course meant that you could not simply turn them away. It was not a question of say take a number and fill in a form and come back and we'll contact you. You had to take these people in and that caused huge pressure on our member states and we are now, I think, reducing that pressure.
Sharyl: Do you see any similarities between the Brexit vote in the UK and the Donald Trump vote here in the United States and are there any lessons there?
David O'Sullivan: I think yes there is a general problem in the western world of a certain disillusion amongst the electorate with the establishment, with established politics, we see this a lot uh in Europe not just in the UK with the Brexit vote but we've seen it in other countries and I think that may have been an element here in the United States.
Sharyl: Is this the beginning of a big sea change or Europe falling apart as a Union?
David O'Sullivan: I don't think we're falling apart at all uh we were very disappointed by the vote in the UK I won't hide from you the fact that uh we're saddened at that decision of the British people that they want to leave the EU, we respect it, it's a democratic decision, we think it will have damaging consequences for the UK for the rest of us but of course this is the decision and we will now work our way through this to try and find the least damaging way of doing this. So people are often very critical of the European Union , I grant you that, I like to say sometimes that Brussels is held in about as much respect in Europe as Washington sometimes is in the rest of the United States people like to groan, but people also understand it brings many benefits and I think that it's one thing to complain it's another thing to say that they'd like to leave and I don't think any other country is going to follow that route anytime soon.
Sharyl: So five years from now you think all the countries remaining in the EU are still there?
David O'Sullivan: I'm absolutely certain that will be the case.
Worth noting, the EU's two most important and powerful members, France and Germany, will both be holding general elections next year. In France in particular, right wing, or populist, politicians are expected to do well.